by H. Brooke Paige
British Colonists in America had been loyal subjects of the Crown for well over one hundred years. They had fought valiantly for King and Country in the French and Indian War (1756-1763). Many of the Americans who would later make up the Continental Army had gained their military experience fighting with the British against the French and their Indian allies. The French and Indian War and its European counterpart, The Seven Years War, had been enormously expensive for England. After the war, the British sought to recover the cost of protecting the Colonies by imposing various forms of taxation and regulation including: the Currency Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1764), the Townsend Act (1767) and the Intolerable Acts (1774), upon the Colonial subjects. These actions gave rise to escalating resentment by the Colonist toward what was viewed as an expansion of imperial authority. Further, while England had secured the rights to all French land claims east of the Mississippi – the British Crown attempted to limit and control the western migration by the Colonial settlers and inadvertently provoked a major war with the natives putting the settlers’ lives at risk. These missteps were viewed as hindering and endangering the economic growth of the Colonies as well as interference with the liberty of the Colonial subjects. Colonial opposition to the initially modest impositions by the British resulted in further and greater taxes and regulation which in turn spurred the Colonist to rebellion and in short order resulted in an all out war for independence.
In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia as the individual Colonies sought to unify and consolidate their efforts to reconcile their complaints with the King. On October 20th they agreed to an Article of Association listing their grievances and calling for local boycotts in all of the Colonies. Additionally, they drafted a petition to King George, III laying out their collective grievances, though most attending the meeting were resigned to the fact that the impending crisis would not be resolved peacefully. Their efforts were answered with additional aggression and actions to deprive the Colonials of their natural rights to life, liberty and property. Parliament passed additional trade restrictions and punitive acts declaring New England to be in rebellion against the King, moving to seize the assets of the Colonials and treat them as enemy combatants. British attempts to secure their military position in Boston only hastened the outbreak of the inevitable conflict on April 19, 1775 when the Massachusetts militia and hostile locals clashed with the British troops at Concord and Lexington.
British authority in the Colonies disintegrated and the Continental Congress became the de facto government, exceeding the powers they had been granted by the individual Colonial governments. As the apparent representatives of the Colonies, the Continental Congress assumed the responsibility for diplomatic negotiations with foreign powers. As the war expanded, the British banned trade with the Colonies and authorized the seizure of all vessels attempting to violate the embargo on December 23rd. The embargo served to strengthen the support for the pro-independence patriots and swept away the arguments of the remaining moderates who had hoped for further negotiations.
In July of 1776, the Second Continental Congress issued its Declaration of Independence declaring themselves free of the authority of the King George III and detailing their grievances. Their list of twenty-seven objections included: the refusal to defend the Colonies from aggression or to support the duly elected legislatures, the courts and their administration of English Law, the arbitrary dismissal of legislatures and judges without explanation and their removal to locations remote and inaccessible to the citizenry, depriving the citizens of their right to trial by jury, the imposition of numerous offices and officials to harass the citizens and destroy the Colonial economy, ordering an embargo cutting off trade with the world, in time of peace maintaining a large standing army, importing foreign mercenaries and allowing them to inflict injury and death upon the citizens without reprisal or punishment for their misdeeds, and lastly claiming that the Colonials by their actions have become out of the King protection treating his subjects as hostiles and confiscating their property as spoils of war.
By issuing the Declaration of Independence, the Colonials formally severed their political and economic ties with England and the King. By declaring themselves a free and independent nation, the Continental Congress could now conduct negotiations with foreign governments, especially France, form alliances and obtain vital assistance in prosecuting their war with England. The British Parliament resorted to a propaganda campaign attempting to trivialize the importance of the Declaration – highlighting what they viewed as flaws in the purported grievances and rebutting their alleged damages and injuries. The campaign was primarily for domestic consumption as many English who had been sympathetic with the Americans felt the Declaration had gone too far, although many in British-ruled Ireland strongly supported the Americans’ cause.
The Declaration of Independence was authored by “the committee of five” selected by the Second Continental Congress and included: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. Their completed Declaration was presented to Congress on July 1, 1776 for consideration. After a detailed review and modest revisions, the state delegates of the Continental Congress approved the document on July 4th.
While the committee of five had been writing the Declaration, Congress had appointed a committee of thirteen delegates to draft a constitution for their new government. On July 12th, 1776 the committee chairman, John Dickerson of Pennsylvania, presented a draft of their work The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to Congress. Debate over issues of state sovereignty, raising revenues, maintaining the troops, creation of a federal judiciary, procedures for voting and numerous other issues resulted in drawn out debates which continued for over a year. In the summer of 1777, Congress finally agreed on a final draft of the Articles and in November sent the document to the States for ratification. Under the Articles, the States retained virtually all governmental powers delegating only limited authority to Congress and the national government. Those delegated powers included declarations of war and peace, negotiating agreements with foreign powers, resolving disputes between the States including border issues and claims to the vast western territories.
While the Articles were intended to create a “confederacy for securing the freedom, sovereignty and independence of the United States,” the powers relinquished by the States were insufficient to operate an effective national government. The government created under the Articles proved to be little more than a debating society where the States’ delegates could voice concerns and attempt to negotiate equitable resolutions; however the national government was unable to enforce any agreements or resolve any controversies. The President of the Congress served as the moderator and secretary of Congress, however he had no authority beyond his control of parliamentary procedures. The government had no executive agencies, no judiciary and no ability to collect revenues for its operation, except for requesting the States to voluntarily provide funds for its support which rarely happened. Additionally, the national government had no power to regulate and promote commerce between the States and soon the States began to enact tariffs and regulations to restrict trade and achieve their own domestic preferences. Without authority or revenues the national government was powerless, and while the States continued to participate and send delegates to the Continental Congress, little good came from their meeting.
Though hostilities with England formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the future of the United States was still in question. Unable to act cohesively, primarily because of the inadequate governance provided by the Articles of Confederation, the nation was in danger of being attacked by foreign invasion, disrupted by foreign or domestic intrigue – or merely devolving into a collection of dysfunctional fiefdoms.
(to be continued in the next issue of the World)
H. Brooke Paige is a historian, writer and a regular contributor to The World.